I was asked to deliver the invocation some years ago before a session of the Texas House of Representatives. As a Christian minister, I prayed to Jesus in the name of Jesus. Those present thanked me for my invocation, then my host gave me a tour of the Capitol.
That was then; this is now.
Stephanie Borowicz is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. When she was asked to deliver the invocation at a House session recently, she prayed to Jesus in the name of Jesus. She mentioned our Lord’s name more than twelve times and gave thanks that President Trump has “stood beside Israel, unequivocally.”
Her prayer has been roundly condemned. One critic claimed that during her invocation, “prayer was weaponized.” A Muslim lawmaker who was inducted into the House that day alleged that her prayer “blatantly represented the Islamophobia that exists among some leaders.” She called on the General Assembly to censure Borowicz.
Numerous media outlets are carrying the story and criticizing Borowicz for praying so overtly in the name of Jesus. However, few are reporting that a Muslim cleric followed her Christian prayer by praying in Arabic and quoting the Qur’an.
Can we be good without God?
The uniqueness of Jesus and the necessity of faith in him are prominent themes woven throughout the New Testament. However, in our culture that tolerates everything but perceived intolerance, such doctrines are anathema to many.
This was a prominent declaration in the Washington Post commentary I discussed yesterday. The writer stated that he will not pass his parents’ Christian faith to his children, but he claims to be “teaching their values.” He believes that he “learned far more about being a good person from my mom than from any of the priests, nuns or teachers I encountered during my time in Catholic school.”
In his mind, he can be as good as his mother without being committed to her Christian faith.
The writer is by no means alone. According to Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.
In a society where hell ranks sixty-fourth on our list of fears and 85 percent of us believe we’ll go to heaven (including, ironically, 77 percent of nonreligious people), it is clear that most of us don’t think we need God to avoid hell.
If we don’t need him to go to heaven or to be good, why do we need him at all?
Can we do good without God?
It seems Americans have settled the question “Do we have to believe in God to be good?” with a resounding no. But perhaps we’ve confused the issue.
I think we’re really answering the question “Do we have to believe in God to do good?”
The answer to this question is obvious.
A pagan Roman officer saved Paul from enemies planning to assassinate the apostle (Acts 23:16–33). Another Roman officer saved Paul from sailors planning to kill him when their ship wrecked (Acts 27:42–44). Without their intervention, we would not have Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, or 2 Timothy (in chronological order).
Stephen Hawking changed astrophysics; Alan Turing has been called the founder of computer science; Andrew Carnegie was one of the greatest philanthropists in history; Richard Feynman made crucial contributions to quantum physics. All were nonbelievers.
But do we have to have a personal relationship with God to be good?
That’s another question.
Nine “fruits” or one “fruit”?
The theological doctrine of “total depravity” states that every part of us—the mind, will, emotions, and physical body—has been corrupted by sin as a result of the Fall. Scripture teaches that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). David admitted, “I was brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5). God’s word is blunt: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
No amount of good works can compensate for our sins or purchase our place in God’s perfect paradise. This is why we need a personal relationship with Jesus. Only he can forgive our sins, save our souls, and give us eternal life as the children of God.
And it is why those of us who have a personal relationship with God’s Son need an equally personal relationship with his Spirit.
If we’re seeking a consensual description of what it is to “be good,” this list of attributes might qualify: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). But these are “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). They are the result of the Spirit’s unhindered transformative work in our lives.
And note that they are a single “fruit,” not nine “fruits.” These are not attributes we are to work harder to attain—they are a multifaceted description of our lives when we are controlled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
My favorite witness in the New Testament
Here’s the bottom line: you and I can do good without God, but we cannot be good unless his Son forgives our sins and his Spirit transforms our fallen natures into the character of Jesus (Romans 8:29).
This is bad news and good news. The bad news is that our secular, self-reliant culture vehemently disagrees with what I’ve written today. The good news is that if the Holy Spirit is controlling and empowering us, others will be drawn to the change they see in us.
My favorite witness in the New Testament is the man born blind whose eyes were healed by Jesus. When asked to explain what had happened to him, the man said simply, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25).
Can you say the same today?